What Catholics Believe - Chapter Sixteen
Confirmation: Sacrament of Strength & Mission
The confirmation season, Easter through Pentecost, is an annual high point of my ministry as bishop. As I think about it, I have never met a bishop – and I have met hundreds – who does not thoroughly enjoy his role as the ordinary minister of confirmation.
Confirmation is the second of the three sacraments of initiation, following baptism and preceding first reception of the Eucharist. In the early days of the Church, bishops were always the celebrants of the initiation sacraments. As the Church grew in numbers and spread through the ancient world, bishops were unable to be present at all of the baptisms. While priests and deacons became and remain the usual ministers of baptism, confirmation continues to be administered, with a few exceptions, by bishops. It is important to know that in the Eastern Catholic Churches (Maronite, Melkite, Ukranian, to name a few), infants are confirmed (chrismated) -- and in some traditions given first Communion – at the time of their baptism.
In most of the 178 Latin, or Western, Church dioceses in the United States, first Eucharist is received in grade two and confirmation is delayed, usually until middle or high school age. This practice, while widespread and the preferred approach of the vast majority of U.S. bishops, does not reflect the ancient and traditional order of the initiation sacraments.
My predecessor, Bishop Joseph Gerry, OSB, for valid theological, historical and pastoral reasons, chose in 1998 to restore confirmation to its traditional place between baptism and first Eucharist. The debate continues, in the United States and here in Maine, about the optimal time for the conferral of confirmation. Many in our diocese are enthusiastic about our current grade two practice. Others plead for a return to the earlier approach of confirmation during the adolescent years. There are arguments to be made for both ways. We continue to monitor and evaluate the situation.
There are some who suggest that confirmation is a “sacrament without a theology.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether the sacrament is conferred at baptism, during childhood, in the teen years, or in adulthood (I once confirmed an 85-year-old man), the sacrament has a strong, clear doctrinal meaning.
As with all the sacraments, the roots of confirmation are in the New Testament and the practice of the early Church. Christ promised the apostles that He would send the Holy Spirit, a promise fulfilled at Pentecost. The prayer that concludes the general intercessions in the Rite of Confirmation makes clear that connection between the sending of the Spirit upon the apostles and the sacrament:
“God our Father, you sent your Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and through them and their successors you gave the Sprit to your people. May his work begun at Pentecost continue to grow in the hearts of all who believe.”
Confirmation is conferred by the anointing with sacred chrism on the forehead of the confirmed, done with the laying on of the hand, while saying the words: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is really the Spirit’s gifts, as is movingly enumerated in the prayer that accompanies the laying on of hands: “Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.”
What are the effects of the grace of confirmation? The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which is our reference text for this Harvest catechetical series, quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace:
- it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation (becoming adopted sons and daughters of God) who makes us cry, ‘Abba, Father!’;
- it unites us more firmly to Christ;
- it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us; it reaches our bond with the Church more perfect;
- it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC #1303).
Confirmation is the sacrament that strengthens us to live the mission Christ has given us. Is confirmation a “sacrament without a theology?” I don’t think so, whatever the age it is received.
The key: careful preparation before, and faithful, ongoing formation following reception of the sacrament. This is the challenge for parish leaders, catechists and, most especially, parents.
Come, Holy Spirit!